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February 28, 2018 << back >>

Pascal Herren – Using Light Sensors to Understand Pollinators

Pollination plays a vital role in food production. It is estimated that 75 per cent of the important food crops rely, to some extent, on insect pollination, either to increase yield or quality. With the intensification of agriculture, the conditions for pollinating insects have become more difficult. Among the considerations around the issue of feeding a growing world population monitoring pollinator health and availability is crucial. A better understanding of pollinators will improve the protection of different pollinator species and may even optimise crop pollination.

Animal pollinators contribute 235 – 577 billion US dollars annually to the global economy – up to 8 percent of the total crop production (IPBES pollination report, 2016). To ensure that we can continue to benefit from the services of pollinators we need to understand how different factors interact with pollinators. FaunaPhotonics, a start-up company based in Copenhagen, is developing a light-based technology that can classify pollinators and other insects in collaboration with Bayer AG. By using a laser beam it is possible to detect and count flying insects on a species level. The technique can be used to document in-field activity of pollinators in different environments.

“Wild pollinators have an important contribution to pollination in agriculture.”
When talking about pollinators in Europe, people usually think of the European honeybee. Other insect pollinators, such as wild bees, flies or butterflies are often forgotten. Even though they are not managed, they can have an important contribution to pollination. Recently some evidence suggests that the abundance of certain wild pollinator species is decreasing in parts of Europe and North America. Some countries are considering including other pollinators in addition to honeybees in future pesticide regulation. New methods to evaluate how pesticides affect these other pollinators will consequently be needed. FaunaPhotonics insect sensor technology can be used in large-scale field studies to investigate which pollinator species are present and their abundance in the crop. Moreover, it can provide data about the variation of pollinator activity over time.

Pollinators are affected by different factors, not all of which are well understood. How attracted pollinators are to certain crop varieties is especially important for crops requiring cross-pollination between different crop varieties of the same crop species (the flower needs to be pollinated with pollen from a plant from a different variety) such as almonds. A row of almond trees with a high attractiveness planted next to a row with a low attractiveness to pollinators will lead to a low yield, because the pollinators will mainly visit the variety with the high attractiveness and the necessary pollen exchange between varieties is hindered. Using an insect sensor allows the breeder to evaluate pollinator activity between plants, better understand which varieties attract pollinators and ultimately increase his profitability and the crop quality.

To bridge times with low food resources for pollinators, farmers are often advised to plant wildflower strips next to their fields. Understanding which wildflower strip is the optimal can be difficult to assess. Different wildflower strips support different pollinator species. An insect sensor which can count and distinguish pollinator species can improve recommendations on which flower strip should be sown along the field. The sensor could also be used to inform the farmer if his actions (e.g. the sowing of wildflower strips) improve the conditions for pollinators.

Society’s resources are best managed if we can quantify and measure what is happening in our environment. Technology can aid us in this effort while making life easier and minimizing our ecological footprint.
Sensors can assist in the development of methods to evaluate the influence of agricultural practices on pollinators and in the optimization of pollination in various crops. A combination of these two approaches will result in a healthier pollinator population and help farmers manage their crops better.

To find out more about FaunaPhotonics and their work on pollinators check